Professor Nicholas Shea

Contact details

Professor Nicholas Shea
B.A.; Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Institute of Philosophy
Institute of Philosophy, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU
020 7862 8824
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Research Summary and Profile

Research interests:
Summary of research interests and expertise:

Research interests: 

  • Philosophy of psychology 
  • Philosophy of cognitive science
  • Philosophy of mind
  • Theories of representational content
  • Decision-making
  • Inheritance systems
  • Cognitive science
  • Cognitive neuroscience



Publication Details

Related publications/articles:

Date Details
27-Sep-2018 Representation in Cognitive Science


 Our thoughts are meaningful. We think about things in the outside world; how can that be so? This is one of the deepest questions in contemporary philosophy. Ever since the 'cognitive revolution', states with meaning-mental representations-have been the key explanatory construct of the cognitive sciences. But there is still no widely accepted theory of how mental representations get their meaning. Powerful new methods in cognitive neuroscience can now reveal information processing in the brain in unprecedented detail. They show how the brain performs complex calculations on neural representations.

Drawing on this cutting-edge research, Nicholas Shea uses a series of case studies from the cognitive sciences to develop a naturalistic account of the nature of mental representation. His approach is distinctive in focusing firmly on the 'subpersonal' representations that pervade so much of cognitive science. The diversity and depth of the case studies, illustrated by numerous figures, make this book unlike any previous treatment. It is important reading for philosophers of psychology and philosophers of mind, and of considerable interest to researchers throughout the cognitive sciences.


Functionalist Interrelations Amongst Human Psychological States Inter Se, ditto for Martians


In Smortchkova, J., Dolega, K., Schlicht, T. (eds.) What Are Mental Representations? (Oxford: OUP), to be published in 2019

Abstract: One job for theories of mental representation is to distinguish between different kinds of mental representation: beliefs, desires, intentions, perceptual states, etc. What makes a mental state a belief that p rather than a desire that p or a visual representation that p? Functionalism is a leading approach for doing so: for individuating mental states.
Functionalism is designed to allow that psychological states can be multiply realized. Mark Sprevak has argued that, for a functionalist account of psychological states to apply to creatures that are organised in a very different way to humans (call them Martians), the way a psychological state is functionally individuated has to be relatively coarse-grained (Sprevak 2009). Psychological research might show that human beliefs are directly available to consciousness, that they are formed as the result of deliberate judgement, and so on, but theorists would be precluded from including these roles in their account of belief, if Sprevak is right.
The argument for coarse-grained individuation fails if we distinguish functionalism about what it takes to be a psychological state in general from functionalism about a particular state type such as belief. Functionalism individuates a psychological state like believing that p partly by reference to its relations to other psychological states: desiring that p, perceiving that p, intending that p, etc. Functionalist motivations do indeed suggest that Martians with a functional organisation and physical substrate quite unlike humans could have psychological states, but not that they should have states with the interrelated collection of functional roles to count as beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. Thus, theorists are not precluded from including functional relations to consciousness or deliberate judgement in their account of (human) belief, consistent with allowing that Martians would have their own collection of functionally interrelated psychological states.
Sprevak’s coarse-grained functionalism implies an implausibly liberal form of extended cognition. The point about functional interrelations allows us to avoid that conclusion without jettisoning functionalism (as Sprevak suggests we should): records in a human notebook may not enter into the right interrelations with other human psychological states to count as beliefs; nor do they enter into any interrelations with Martian psychological states. Functionalism can therefore allow that Martians have psychological states while holding that few if any of the beliefs we humans have are, as a matter of fact, extended.


Publications available on SAS-space:

Date Details
Jun-2017 Learning Rapidly about the Relevance of Visual Cues Requires Conscious Awareness


Humans have been shown capable of performing many cognitive tasks using information of which they are not consciously aware. This raises questions about what role consciousness actually plays in cognition. Here, we explored whether participants can learn cue-target contingencies in an attentional learning task when the cues were presented below the level of conscious awareness, and how this differs from learning about conscious cues. Participants’ manual (Experiment 1) and saccadic (Experiment 2) response speeds were influenced by both conscious and unconscious cues. However, participants were only able to adapt to reversals of the cue-target contingencies (Experiment 1) or changes in the reliability of the cues (Experiment 2) when consciously aware of the cues. Therefore, although visual cues can be processed unconsciously, learning about cues over a few trials requires conscious awareness of them. Finally, we discuss implications for cognitive theories of consciousness.

Jun-2017 Content in Simple Signalling Systems


Our understanding of communication and its evolution has advanced significantly through the study of simple models involving interacting senders and receivers of signals. Many theorists have thought that the resources of mathematical information theory are all that are needed to capture the meaning or content that is being communicated in these systems. However, the way theorists routinely talk about the models implicitly draws on a conception of content that is richer than bare informational content, especially in contexts where false content is important. This article shows that this concept can be made precise by defining a notion of functional content that captures the degree to which different states of the world are involved in stabilizing senders’ and receivers’ use of a signal at equilibrium. A series of case studies is used to contrast functional content with informational content, and to illustrate the explanatory role and limitations of this definition of functional content.

Mar-2018 Metacognition and Abstract Concepts


The problem of how concepts can refer to or be about the non‐mental world is particularly puzzling for abstract concepts. There is growing evidence that many characteristics beyond the perceptual are involved in grounding different kinds of abstract concept. A resource that has been suggested, but little explored, is introspection. This paper develops that suggestion by focusing specifically on metacognition—on the thoughts and feelings that thinkers have about a concept. One example of metacognition about concepts is the judgement that we should defer to others in how a given concept is used. Another example is our internal assessment of which concepts are dependable and useful, and which less so. Metacognition of this kind may be especially important for grounding abstract concepts.

Additional Publications

Research Projects & Supervisions

Research projects:

Metacognition of concepts

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